How Transfer Students Became Trendy This fall, Princeton University admitted its first transfer students in nearly three decades. And they're not the only elite schools looking to community colleges and military bases to recruit.

Top Colleges Seeking Diversity From A New Source: Transfer Students

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At some of our nation's top universities, more and more students are coming from an unlikely place - community college. That's because many Ivy League and other elite schools are accepting more transfer students. This is unusual because for the longest time at elite schools, if you didn't get in as a freshman, you didn't get in at all. NPR's Elissa Nadworny explains what's behind this change.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Walk across the green at Amherst College, a top liberal arts school in Massachusetts, and you'll most likely see a campus full of 18 and 19-year-olds. But more and more, you meet people like this.

MARIA AYBAR: My name is Maria Aybar. I'm a transfer student. I transferred September 2017. I never really thought that I was going to go to an elite school, as they call them.

NADWORNY: Maria and her mother came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was a teenager. Her English wasn't that great. And when it came time for college, she was a bit lost.

AYBAR: The SATs, why do I have to take them? How do you apply for colleges? (Laughter) Why are there are so many colleges in this country? Like, there were so many things that you just don't know.

NADWORNY: So like a lot of her peers, she enrolled at community college. There, she improved her writing. She took honors classes and worked towards an associate's degree. Three and a half years later, she transferred to Amherst. More and more elite private schools are trying to diversify their student bodies by recruiting students like Maria. Just this year, Princeton University enrolled its first group of transfer students in nearly three decades, and many are from community college. It's part of an attempt to make elite colleges look like the rest of America.

HEATHER DUROSKO: Diverse students are the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S.

NADWORNY: That's Heather Durosko from the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

DUROSKO: So it's really important for colleges recognizing that trend to realize that more and more of their students are going to be coming from that pathway.

NADWORNY: Indeed, more than half of Hispanic undergrads are enrolled at community colleges. The same is true for Native Americans, and about 40 percent of African-American students go to community college. And schools are recognizing that, hiring admissions officers dedicated exclusively to transfer and community college students. At Amherst, that person is Lexi Hurd.

LEXI HURD: There's a lot of high-achieving students who end up at two-year schools.

NADWORNY: Finances have a lot to do with it, but there are other factors.

HURD: They feel like, maybe I have a lot of pressure to stay near home. Or, no one in my family's gone to college before, so let me dip my toes in this for a little bit and then potentially sort of expand my wings.

NADWORNY: And expanding those wings, Lexi Hurd knows that that can be scary and confusing.

HURD: Their learning curve in that first semester is a steep one. And I think that that's a really important message for people to know (laughter).

NADWORNY: So it's not just recruiting from community colleges, she says. There has to be support when those students actually enroll because things like this happen. Right before Maria Aybar started at Amherst, her mom lost her job.

AYBAR: It was hard for me to be here and have food in my plate while I wasn't sure how my mom was doing.

NADWORNY: It was a hit on her confidence on top of the heavy course load and the constant doubts of, am I really good enough to be here?

AYBAR: Here, students, they talk a certain way. You know, they have these huge words that they constantly use in class. And they're able to make these amazing connections and things like that. And times you feel like, oh, my God, I can't do that. You know? Like - and it's not like you can't do it. It's just that you have not been yet prepared for that.

NADWORNY: After that first semester, things got better for Maria. There is a transfer students center on campus and lots of resources. When she thinks back to her time in high school and then community college, she can hardly believe that she's now a junior at Amherst.

AYBAR: When you have big dreams, and you don't have the resources for it, you feel trapped. And you feel that nothing is ever going to change. So being able to be here and to fulfill my dream of education means the world to me.

NADWORNY: She says she's starting to see that her professors and her classmates value that she brings a different perspective. And all those big, fancy words, they can't take that away. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Amherst, Mass.

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